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No matter that it was filmed largely in China, 'Skiptrace' hews closer
to the Hollywood action comedies that Jackie Chan was making for a
predominantly Western audience in the early 2000s than the big- budget
Chinese historical epics that he has been making thereafter. Like 'Rush
Hour' or 'Shanghai Noon' therefore, Jackie is here accompanied by an
American sidekick whose main and perhaps only purpose is to serve as
his comic foil and that honour this time round has been bestowed on
'Jackass' star Johnny Knoxville. Yet even though it plays completely
according to formula by allowing Jackie and Johnny to bicker and joust
together and against each other, there is something distinctly
diminishing about their 'odd-couple' enterprise this time round, such
that the Renny Harlin-directed film is never quite as exciting or
amusing as it needs to be in order to be entertaining.
To be sure, it does begin on a high by introducing Jackie's Hong Kong police officer Bennie Chan in the midst of a raid on a drug trade happening in one of Tai-O's stilt houses. It is nothing spectacular to be frank, but seeing Jackie do what he does best is always a treat. Just as Jackie, Johnny's character also gets an extended introduction that establishes him as the disarmingly charming hustler Connor Watts, who arrives in Macau with Russian gangsters on his heel for owing a debt to their boss Dima. Connor is twice unwittingly caught up in Victor's affairs by being at the wrong place and the wrong time to have seen Victor shoot dead a female with apparently incriminating evidence against the latter, which also explains why he opts to go with the Russians later on. It is this turn of events that sets Connor up as a prized witness for Bennie as well as a target whom Victor sends his henchmen (led by Leo Ku) to eliminate.
Bennie's initial run-in with the Russians that kicks off the middle act is probably the most lively action sequence among the three elaborate ones that Jackie stages throughout the course of the movie. Jackie is as playful as ever in these scenes, whether stuffing Connor in a bin and rolling him down the pavements or using a life-sized Russian doll to evade the blows of a tough leather-clad female opponent dubbed the 'Siberian Terminator' (Eve Torres), but this is unfortunately also the point where it (sometimes literally) starts going downhill.
Because Jackie has taken it upon himself to be China's unofficial ambassador to the world, 'Skiptrace' also carries with it his motivation to showcase the sights and cultures of the more native parts of China. And so, even though it defies narrative logic, Bennie's trek across China with Connor back to Hong Kong will include a dinner-and-dance with a Mongolian tribe where Jackie will perform Adele's 'Rolling in the Deep' (believe that!) as well as a stopover at a Yunnan village where the people happen to be releasing 'kongming lanterns' that evening and celebrating the 'Mud Festival' and 'Hundred Family Feast' in the morning. In between, Bennie and Connor sneak their way on board a train, drive a rickety two-seater vehicle into the Gobi Desert, row down a fast-flowing river on a raft buoyed by inflated pig skin and even spend a night in a cave spooning each other to keep warm.
Yet even with these opportunities for bonding, one never gets a real sense of camaraderie between the two travellers. That is partly because Jackie often takes the moral high ground chastising Connor for not being a 'man of honour', partly because Johnny spends most of his time scowling for being dragged against his will across China, partly because the script by first-time writers Jay Longino and Bendavio Grabinski lacks character depth, and also because Jackie and Johnny do not quite share enough chemistry to turn the antagonism between their characters into the sort of 'love-hate' relationship that the movie needs. As a result, Connor's change of heart later on feels obligatory, be it a newfound sense of honour that motivates him to speak up for the truth or a renewed sense of loyalty towards Bennie to help a 'brother' in time of need.
Ditto the final setpiece set at a shipyard in Hong Kong notwithstanding a late twist on the identity of 'The Matador', the action feels tired and uninspired, even with Jackie doing a lot of running around. His best sequences have always had an operatic grace and order to them, but Jackie's last hurrah here lacks elegance and comes across haphazard and is even overshadowed by a girl-on-girl showdown between Torres and Mainland actress Zhang Lanxin. That is even more disappointing considering how Jackie and his director Renny (of 'Die Hard 2' and 'Cliffhanger') are supposed to be pros at staging such high-wire acts, but seem content to go out in a middling way here.
Alas that sentiment is true of the movie as a whole, which ultimately lacks the screen rapport (between Jackie and Johnny) so sorely needed to make the buddy-comedy pop. By the time he finally got this made, Jackie too seems exhausted, and those looking for his usual level of energy or inventiveness will surely go away empty. Even on the level of the Hollywood action comedies Jackie used to make, this probably ranks among one of his least, not as dire or embarrassing as 'The Spy Next Door' but not quite much better than 'The Tuxedo'. This is no 'CZ12' for sure, and seeing as how Jackie has already lined up 'Railroad Tigers' for the end of the year, you'll be better off waiting for that than this 'Rush Hour' reject neither fun nor thrilling enough to even justify a fourth instalment under the banner.
Because Chinese audiences have never been shy about their love for
glossy but shallow bid-budget Hollywood spy thrillers, it was only a
matter of time before their own filmmakers responded in kind with a
locally-made product of the same ilk. 'Bounty Hunters' is precisely
that, a perfect imitation of Hollywood excess that wears its
credentials proudly on its sleeve as it globe-trots from Tokyo to Hong
Kong to Incheon to Bangkok and finally to Jeju Island. True to its
heritage, its primary purpose is to entertain, even at the expense of
plot or character (which it treats only as filler in between the
numerous slick action sequences) and with scant regard to the laws of
physics or of simple basic realism.
More important than the characters they play are the actors themselves, whose star wattage is one of the main draws. Korean actor Lee Min Ho headlines the pan-Asian cast, playing the stereotypical hero Lee San with the cool moves and unflappable attitude. Next to him is the comic foil Yo played by Hong Kong singer-actor Wallace Chung, a bumbling sidekick for the most part always ready with a pun to lighten up the mood. They are joined by Mainland actress Tang Yan as the no- nonsense Cat, seemingly tough-as-nails but a romantic-at-heart, and Hong Kong actress Karena Ng as her cheerful assistant Swan, whose presence is no more than to balance the girls-to-guys ratio in the ensemble.
As formula would have it, Lee San and Yo are initially at odds with Cat and her team (which includes Louis Fan as a loyal multi-talented butler who hardly ever speaks) before being forced to put aside their differences and work together in order to clear their name. Implicated as the terrorists behind a string of bombings of the A Hotel in Tokyo, Singapore (yay, we get a mention!), Incheon and Bangkok, it is altogether no surprise that Cat will eventually be attracted to Lee San or that the latter will end up saving her life at least once during the course of their adventure a familiar but nonetheless effectively amusing scene has them trapped in the trunk of a moving car (in a blatant rip-off of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in 'Out of Sight') with both taking turns to get over the other to hit a switch that will free them.
Their enemy as it turns out is the wannabe evil-looking Tommy, played by Mainland actor JeremyJoes Xu, whose motivation for engineering the bombings is never quite convincing (and was probably never meant to be anyways). By wave of an electromagnetic pulse transmitted by a trigger to vials of liquid bombs hidden within birthday cakes, Tommy gets to enjoy the 'fireworks' of the explosions completely unscathed and along the way, he uses that same mechanism to hold hostage one of their own so as to force Cat to do his bidding. Neither his raison d'être nor his pseudo-psychopathic act comes off remotely sinister, and one wonders several times why Lee San or Cat does not simply throw him off the top of his tall building when they have the chance to but hey, we wouldn't have a show then, would we?
Indeed, Tommy stays alive in order to give excuse for Min Ho and Cat to show off their lightning-quick martial arts, both of whom apparently more skillful than 'Ip Man' in taking out about 20 baddies each at one go. As if sensing that mere punches, kicks and dodges cannot quite sustain their younger-skewing fan demographic, our heroes also get to choose from a bevy of sophisticated weapons/ gadgets, including a cudgel that can double up as an electric stun gun, a double-reinforced Kevlar bulletproof vest and a wireless transmitter cum earpiece that can camouflage like skin under one's ear. On his part, director Shin Tae-ra keeps the action flowing at a fast snappy clip, and even if none of the sequences dazzle on their own, they minimally do not outlast their welcome.
Diverting though the whole enterprise may be, there is more than a hint of disappointment that 'Bounty Hunters' is content to be as superficial and inconsequential as many of its Hollywood counterparts. Because there seems to be greater emphasis on making sure the actors and the shots look attractive and gratifying, there is hardly any sense that anything is at stake be it life, limb or other collateral. If you're looking for some mindless fun, 'Bounty Hunters' is just that; otherwise, you'd be advised to look elsewhere for some other bounty.
As enduring as he may have been through the history of cinema as well
as in literature, Edgar Rice Burroughs' muscle-bound British lord
raised by apes in the African jungle, who grows up to fall in love with
an American woman named Jane, is undeniably antiquated in this day and
age. Not only would its depiction of British colonialism and tribal
Africans seem utterly archaic, the very fact that it conjures the
notion of the white man's burden is cultural poison, which pretty much
explains why the most successful take on the character in recent times
has been the late-90s animation of the same name from Disney. And yet,
for once and future 'Harry Potter' wizard David Yates to attempt his
take on Tarzan inspires some measure of confidence that there remains a
place for the Lord of the Apes in contemporary filmmaking.
Sure enough, Yates and his screen writing duo of Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer start off well enough with a fresh narrative that begins with Tarzan as a now domesticated gentleman settled in his family's Greystoke Manor and happily married to his Jane. That period of domestic bliss is interrupted when he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to accept an invitation by King Leopold of Belgium to revisit the Congo and serve as trade emissary for the British, an offer he refuses until the American statesman George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) persuades him to make the trip to investigate the latter's suspicions of slavery. Williams' character and motivations are no coincidence his real-life namesake was a decorated Civil War soldier who had travelled to King Leopold's Congo Free State and written about the exploitation of the African people by the Belgian colony.
That is but one adjustment that Yates makes to his tale in order to shake off the character's imperialistic shadow. Rather than have him lord over the local tribe he once spent time with, Yates positions Tarzan as their equal; later on, Tarzan will also come to acknowledge his dishonourable deed of having taken the life of a native from another tribe, which has in part contributed to his existing predicament. No sooner has he, Jane and Williams arrived in Africa does he find himself the target of a bunch of mercenaries led by King Leopold's representative Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has made a deal with a vengeful tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for a fortune in legendary diamonds for his otherwise bankrupt sovereign.
Tarzan narrowly escapes the kidnap, but Jane is not quite so lucky, and so the former spends the rest of his time reuniting with former friends and reconciliating with former foes while running and swinging through the dense African jungle in pursuit of the steamer on which Leon has Jane held captive. That setup is surprisingly engaging, though it does go back and forth a little too much to establish Tarzan's backstory from the source material (i.e. the death of his mother as an infant, his father's death at the hands of the leader of the ape tribe by whom he is adopted, and his first encounter with Jane where he saves her from the same ferocious ape leader); alas, even if it does get off to a good swing, this Tarzan ultimately falls off the vine when it is more than halfway through.
We're not talking about Jackson's somewhat anachronistic sidekick act, which frankly we thought was a genuinely fun foil next to Tarzan's masculinity. We're not talking either about Waltz's umpteenth erudite villain act, which despite being niftily armed with deadly rosary made from Madagascar spider silk, is getting too familiar and tired. And certainly, we have no complaints about Margot Robbie's atypically feisty Jane, who brings nerve and bravado to her damsel-in-distress role. Oh no, what takes Tarzan down is how hasty he seems to get to his inevitable happy ending, so frenetic to the point that it trivialises his Alpha-male conflict with the ape leader whom he has a mano-a-mano with, the grudge that he was responsible for with Hounsou's Chief Mbonga, as well as the danger that he faces confronting Rom and his men out-numbered and out-gunned.
That his Tarzan hardly registers isn't Alexander Skarsgård's fault though; in fact, the 'True Blood' hunk is probably one of the best, if not the best, Tarzan we have seen, not only in terms of his incredibly ripped physique but also of how he emotes his character's feral core in the earlier scenes. Yet Skarsgård is underserved by a mysterious urgency to get things over and done with whether to ensure that the summer audience doesn't get bored or because Yates is too eager to move on to his next 'Harry Potter' venture which only further leaves us in the cold as it rushes from one CG-enhanced setpiece to another. As well-filmed as these are including an early one where Tarzan leads the natives to literally swing on board a moving train and the climactic centrepiece featuring a wildebeest stampede they aren't quite as thrilling without a deeper emotional connection with the titular character himself.
It is also somewhat unfortunate that 'The Legend of Tarzan' arrives in the wake of Disney's 'The Jungle Book', which represented the zenith of modern-day CG in portraying both the lush jungle environment as well as its inhabitants within. In comparison, the CG here comes off oddly alienating at best and subpar at worst, especially during the scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the trees at full speed. Yet what this rebooted tale of Tarzan really lacks is spirit and poignance, without which not even the character's famous jungle cry makes him resonate. Not all is lost of course, but given Yates' pedigree as well as a promising first half, we expect this Tarzan to come out swinging rather than limping to its finish.
A good twenty years has passed since Will Smith's F18 pilot Steven
Hiller and Jeff Goldblum's computer scientist David Levinson entered
the alien mothership that blew up the White House and detonated it from
within, saving the human race from annihilation and giving the world
two decades of peace through its unity against a more fearsome enemy .
In that time, a global Earth Space Defense Agency has been set up with
outposts on the moon and Saturn, supported by a defense force that
counts Steven's son Tom and former President Bill Thomas J. Whitemore's
daughter as its pilots. Alien technology has enriched not just our
weaponry but our very lives, allowing us to build a high-tech utopia
where we can overcome our human limitations such as gravity.
As tantalizing as Roland Emmerich's vision of an alternate present may be, few we suspect will be in the mood to get re-acquainted with our heroes of yesteryear, notwithstanding that Emmerich have taken pains to bring them back for this long-overdue sequel. Like before, it is alien destruction on a monumental scale that most will likely be eagerly awaiting with bated breath including Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers smashing into the London Eye, Dubai's Burg Kalifa 'spearing' London's Tower Bridge and our very own iconic Marina Bay skyline decimated by the marauding species. Never mind that Emmerich suggests our little red dot is a city in China, seeing our landmarks breaking apart on the big screen as they are sucked up into the sky by a 3000-mile wide queen ship is not a kick you get to have every day.
Alas this is hardly the first time that Emmerich has plotted worldwide catastrophe '2012' and 'The Day After Tomorrow' were also his doings and that probably explains why he seems less keen on destroying the landmarks than on choreographing the aerial and ground battles between man and alien. Leading the charge against the invaders in Smith's place are Liam Hemsworth's maverick pilot Jake Morrison and Jessie T Usher's Dylan Hiller (the son of Smith's character), the two Top Gun wannabes at odds with each other at the start following a training skirmish that almost killed Dylan. Quite frankly, the personal drama goes nowhere, serving only as filler before the pair take to the skies to try and take down the queen right at the heart of the mothership.
But what a thrilling spectacle that makes, as swarms of fighter jets and alien spaceships whiz past each other at dizzying speeds in an aerial dogfight that Emmerich pulls off with aplomb. Emmerich has always loved orchestrating spectacle, and despite a brief sojourn into dramatic fare (last year's 'Stonewall' anyone?), he demonstrates here that he has not lost his knack for epic-scaled action sequences that he was known for creating long before Marvel got into the game. The finale that sees Emmerich bring the fight out to the Salt Flats of Nevada (because the Earth Space Defense Agency just happens to be headquartered in Area 51, get it?) too doesn't disappoint, especially in its show of human wit and ingenuity against the might and numbers of the alien contingent.
Yet even as it finds Emmerich at his best, 'IDR' also represents Emmerich at his worst. Character work is middling at best, dismal at worst. Goldblum's wry Earth Space Defense director fares best, given the honour of dishing out the occasional sardonic quip that helps the movie as a whole find the right balance between absurd and awesome. Pullman's PTSD-stricken ex-President seems present only for nostalgia's sake, with little to do than to show that he is just as self-sacrificial with or without that presidential title. Usher is no Will Smith (despite trying to echo the latter by selling the iconic line 'Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!') and barely registers. Ditto ex-President Whitmore's grown-up daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), who serves no purpose but as love interest to Jake, the only memorable figure of the new guard. Not that fans of the original will be impressed; instead, they are more likely to cheer the return of Brent Spiney and John Storey as a pair of gay lovers/ nuclear scientists at Area 51.
Despite the assistance of four other co-writers (including his frequent collaborator Dean Devlin), Emmerich's storytelling leaves much to be desired. After a steady build-up in the first half hour, the rest feels like a patchwork that threatens to fall apart due to under-developed plot threads, vague timelines and Deus-ex-Machinas the size of giant Pokeballs (we mean this literally). Because the invasion and the subsequent response feels rushed and somewhat incoherent, one can't quite feel the anticipation before the attack, the great release of tension when it hits, and that sigh of relief when the threat is finally neutralized. The occasional levity does help to gloss over some of the sheer ludicrousness, but Emmerich's failure to get his audience invested in his narrative or his characters means that you won't feel the fist-pumping emotional triumph he is clearly aiming for at the end.
And in a sense, 'IDR' is quintessential Emmerich, built on a promise of epic spectacle which it delivers spectacularly but diminished in storytelling and character. It was always unrealistic to expect this sequel to match up to the expectations of its predecessor, not least because the latter was a cultural touchstone by heralding the arrival of the modern-day effects-driven blockbuster. For millennials though, Emmerich has ensured that this sequel works like a blast from the past, reveling in visual excess and embracing its silly cheesy premise with open arms. How much you love this resurgence depends on your appetite for big, loud and dumb fun that you won't remember once you step out of the cinema, which makes for great summer entertainment but frankly not much more.
As convenient as it may be to pigeonhole 'Central Intelligence' into
the label of a buddy cop movie, the always-amusing, often-hilarious and
surprisingly-affecting action comedy really is much more. For starters,
Kevin Hart's Calvin Joyner isn't a cop at all; in fact, he's a put-
upon mild-mannered accountant who is disillusioned with his job and
where he is at in life, despite being married to his high-school
sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet). For another, Calvin and Dwayne Johnson's
Bob Stone can't quite be called buddies, especially since they have
been out of touch with each other for the past twenty years and are
only reconnecting upon Bob's initiation on the eve of their high school
homecoming reunion party.
Oh yes, the catch here is that while Calvin used to be the high- school superstar who excelled at everything from athletics to academics to drama and was thus dubbed 'The Golden Jet', Bob who used to go by the name Robbie Weirdicht was the overweight kid who had to contend with being dragged out of the locker-room shower by a bunch of sneering bullies and thrown naked in the middle of a school assembly. And yet, in his moment of humiliation, Calvin's act of kindness in offering his 'Golden Jet' jacket to cover Bob's privates has made him Bob's hero, so much so that Bob worships Calvin as no less than his idol. But it isn't just for old times' sake that Bob is now reaching out to Calvin indeed, after watching 'Fat Robbie'- turned-He-Man take out four bullies in front of his eyes, Calvin agrees to Bob's seemingly innocuous favour of accounting help with his overseas payroll.
And so begins a series of CIA hijinks, as Bob reveals himself to be a CIA agent after someone known as the 'Black Badger' who has stolen the US satellite encryption keys and intends to sell them to the highest bidder. Though Calvin wants no part in the high-stakes operation, he finds that he is already unwittingly involved when Bob's superior Pamela (Amy Ryan) turns up at his doorstep and informs him that Bob is a rogue agent who happens to be the very Badger himself. Oh, there's also the question of whether Bob's former partner (Aaron Paul in an extended cameo) was killed by the Badger as Bob claims or was in fact killed by Bob himself as Pamela claims. As earnest as Bob may appear, Calvin's struggle as he grazes past one life-threatening setpiece after another is whether to trust Bob in the first place.
From an extended shootout at Calvin's office that ends with Bob and Calvin crashing through the eleventh-storey window onto a giant gorilla inflatable below, to a CIA safe house where Calvin springs Bob from custody, to an underground parking garage where Bob comes face to face with his nemesis, director Rawson Marshall Thurber stages the action with surprising élan, emphasizing Johnson's swift and lethal moves as well as Hart's barely controlled hysteria at every turn. Yet because Johnson and Hart have performed similar shtick in previous roles, the real fun is in watching the two actors play against each other in quieter and more intimate scenes, such as a couples' therapy session between Calvin and his wife which Bob crashes by pretending to be their therapist.
It is in scenes such as this that the sheer chemistry between Johnson and Hart shines through. Thurber, who co-wrote the script with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, plays against his audience's expectation by letting the usually motor-mouthed Hart play the straight man and Johnson be the unhinged man-child responsible for the verbal and physical shenanigans. Thanks to Johnson and Hart's elevated performances, the 'role reversal' works beautifully and makes for reason alone to watch this instead of say the next 'Ride Along' sequel. The stronger than usual character work is yet further proof that this film is a notch above many others of its ilk, demonstrated in the insecurities that Bob and Calvin each have to deal with individually along the way.
Even though the opening scene of Bob's teenage appearance in the form of Johnson's face fattened by CG trickery suggests that it may end up pandering to the lowest-denominator, 'Central Intelligence' ultimately proves unexpectedly sensitive to the plight of those bullied in high school in its concluding scene, where Bob finally overcomes his personal demons to take the stage in front of his schoolmates twenty years after being painfully humiliated. Besides a cameo by Melissa McCarthy as Bob's high-school crush, it is as sweet a parting shot as any, underscoring yet again what an earnestly endearing and humorous joyride this odd-couple buddy movie has been. Most of all, Johnson and Hart are like 'yin' and 'yang', and together they prove that a little Hart and a big Johnson goes a long, long way.
Three stories of loss, regret and reconciliation; three different
persons, each played by Taiwanese actor Chen Bolin, coming face-to-
face with someone they used to be close to but have been separated from
for some years now; three up-and-coming young directors making their
big-screen debut under the tutelage of executive producer Anthony Chen.
That, in a nutshell, summarises the elegantly titled '再 见，在也不见' (which
literally translated means 'Goodbye, Not Seeing You'), an anthology
which contemplates the theme of distance in relationships that
manifests itself geographically, temporally and perhaps most
Opening the triptych is perhaps its most enigmatic short, 'The Son', by China's Xin Yukun, that sees Chen play a manager on a business trip to Guangxi who sees a familiar face in an elderly worker tending the grounds at his company's shipping terminal. With a poignant supporting turn by veteran Hong Kong actor Paul Chun, this understatedly moving segment finds its emotional centre in an estranged father-son relationship in which the latter learns to come to terms with the years the former has been absent without the sort of confrontation that you would expect from a shrill Taiwanese family drama. Only right at the end does Xin allow Chen's character to let loose his anguish, and by so doing, also ensures a gut-wrenching end to an otherwise subdued mood piece.
'The Lake' by our very own Tan Shijie is next, unfolding as two parallel narratives at two different points in time the first with Chen's Chen De Ming as a young father who receives a letter from a teenage friend Lin Ren Zheng (Yo Yang) who is due to be executed in Changi Prison in two days; and the second with De Ming and Ren Zheng (played by Wei Han-Ding and Cheng Huan-Lin respectively) in their teenage years in the Taiwanese countryside where they spend most of their afternoons together by the titular lake. The latter has Zhu Shen-Long playing De Ming's father, who disapproves of his bookish son hanging out with the roguish Ren Zheng and if you're thinking shades of homosexual attraction between the pair, let's just say that it is precisely what Tan hints at here.
Just as in 'The Son', there is a gut-wrenching end here, not by Ren Zheng's death by hanging which we already expect from the start, but rather the revelation of just what led to the two boys to be cast adrift from each other all those years ago. Whereas the other shorts only hint at the past, Tan's entry acts out the relationship between the pair of characters before their eventual estrangement, which is also the reason why his is probably the most emotionally compelling. Its final image of De Ming returning to the lake with Ren Zheng's ashes where their friendship first began also claims the honour of being the most elegiac concluding shot among the rest, so if we'll have to pick a favourite among the three, this will be it.
The appropriately titled 'The Goodbye' by Thailand's Sivaroj Kongsakul concludes the triptych with Chen playing a Shanghai university professor named Chen Zhi Bin who visits Bangkok to deliver a lecture on modern-day Chinese youth in the Internet era. After he is reacquainted with his former Chinese lecturer (Jiang Wenli) who is now teaching at the same Thai university, Zhi Bin reveals that he only accepted the offer because he wanted to see her again. Their reunion is juxtaposed against a possible romance with Pim (Chayanit Chansangavej), a local Thai-Chinese university student who is assigned to be Zhi Bin's guide during his time in Bangkok and who develops a crush on the professor.
Notwithstanding an affecting supporting turn by veteran Chinese actress Jiang, this restrained story of repressed love and unrequited feelings is probably the thinnest of the three, not least because neither Zhi Bin's previous relationship with Jiang's Professor Xie Hong or Pim's attraction for Zhi Bin is satisfactorily fleshed out. Right up to the end, it never builds a convincing enough reason for both to co-exist with each other, especially since the former is mutual and the latter seems to be only one-sided. But, like Xin and Tan's entries, Kongsakul's one possesses a rueful grace, only allowing its main character to display the depth of his longing for his former lover right at the end.
As an omnibus, 'Distance' is probably the most consistent we have seen, which is both its strength as well as its weakness. Indeed, there's no denying the filmmaking is artfully polished, and its quietly reflective style deliberate in ensuring that the three shorts are tonally similar. Yet it is also precisely this same quality that makes it a tad boring, so much so that we wonder how much the three individual directors had suppressed their own filmmaking inclinations in favour of a unifying ambiance. Yet by the time Stephanie Sun's soulful voice takes over at the end credits for the titular theme song, you'll probably be thinking about a certain someone in your own life that you used to be close to but have since drifted apart from and that in itself is a testament to how subtly powerful the film has been.
Before Apocalypse unleashes the end of the world, there is a moment
when the gifted youngsters of Professor Charles Xavier's school for
mutants sneak out to the cinema to see 'Return of the Jedi'. Following
a debate which of the original 'Star Wars' films is the best, a teenage
Jean Grey gets the final word with the following remark: "Well, at
least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst". Though
clearly intended as a dig at Brett Ratner's oft-criticised 'The Last
Stand', it is an equally prescient remark about the third
superhero-versus-superhero showdown of this year, a loud, empty,
overblown CGI-fest that possesses not the depth or excitement of the
eminently superior 'Captain America: Civil War' nor even the grand
operatic ambition of the flawed 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'.
As promising as it may be to underscore the ideological divide among the mutants of waging war or making peace by introducing an all- powerful deity meant to be the first of their kind, that premise never quite comes to fruition here. Aside from world domination (which pretty much sums up describes what every other comic book villain is after), there is no purpose or motivation to Apocalypse's plan to scorch everything on the planet. Try though Oscar Isaac does, the usually charismatic actor struggles to bring much conviction to his character's monologues about restoring the strong in their rightful place atop society, not least because the actor is buried under slathered-on makeup, facial prosthetics and a costume that would make Thanos embarrassed.
Seeing as how Apocalypse proves to be a disappointingly generic villain, it once again falls to James McAvoy's Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender's Magneto/ Erik Lensherr to provide the dramatic conflict on which the showdown between good and evil is based. And yet that tension between Charles' man of reason and hope versus Magneto's darker impulses has been fought so many times that it feels familiar and undercooked here, especially considering how its immediate predecessor had fleshed out the same complex relationship out so much more beautifully.
That essentially reduces 'Apocalypse' to yet another superhero round- up much like the first 'X-Men' or 'X-Men: First Class', and so, for the first hour, we are introduced to newcomers Tye Sheridan's laser- sighted Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops, Sophie Turner's telekinetic Jean Grey and Teutonic teleporter Kurt Wagner a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They will eventually join forces with 'First Class' regulars Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to go head to head with Apocalypse's 'Four Horsemen' recruits weather-controller Storm (Alexandra Shipp), energy- manipulator Psylocke (Olivia Munn), flight-enabled Angel (Ben Hardy) and last but not least, Magneto. News about the latter will also prompt the son he doesn't yet know about, Quiksilver (Evan Peters), to enlist in Professor Xavier's school, where he will put his fleet- footed powers to save all the students within from an explosion ripping the building apart.
Given how that sequence set to Eurythmics' period-appropriate synth- jam 'Sweet Dreams' is by and large an exact copy of the crowdpleasing scene-stealing sequence in 'Days of Future Past', there is more than a nagging suspicion that director Bryan Singer (who marks his fourth 'X- Men' outing with this movie) has pretty much run out of ideas. As if compensating for an attention-deficit audience, Singer and his screenwriter Simon Kinberg cut from subplot to subplot without ever letting their audience get involved in any one storyline or character. Even though the 'X-Men' movies have always been an ensemble, Singer has always grounded them in their struggles to emerge from wealth or poverty, acceptance or rejection, confidence or self-hatred; yet this latest dumbs down their humanity in favour of pure spectacle, which proves an ultimately foolhardy choice in this era where there are just too many superheroes fighting for our attention.
Even as a superhero slugfest, the action is frankly disappointing. It says a lot when Quiksilver's cheeky slo-mo turns out to be the highlight of a film that promises no less than the end of the world. At any and every opportunity, every other character reminds us of what is at stake, but the large-scale catastrophe consists of nothing more than unimpressive shots of capital cities (including New York, Sydney and Cairo) reduced to swirling CGI-dust with little sense of tragedy or consequence. The climax itself is packed with plenty of sound and fury, but comes off shockingly dull. Rather than have the Horsemen take apart the good guys as a team, Singer splits the fight into a series of mini-skirmishes that hardly do the characters or their superpowers justice. By the time Apocalypse (finally) steps into the fray after a way-too-long buildup, the battle has shifted into his mind (which, as we suspect, turns out to be pretty blank), but that change of setting barely unleashes any creative possibility for Singer to think out of this world.
And coming off 'Days of Future Past', 'Apocalypse' is undoubtedly a tragic letdown. There are so many characters that even Charles and Magneto become no more than supporting acts, their perennial disagreement treated as an afterthought than the dramatic dynamo of the film. The titular villain may seem like great potential as an antagonist, but ends up vague, underwhelming and insignificant. And most notably, what used to be potent allegory about the civil rights movement or coming out in the LGBT community has now been diminished to standard, sometimes sub-standard, superhero melee, so much so that it even fails to make good use of its vibrant 1980s setting except for a couple of recognisable tunes. It may not be the apocalypse of the 'X-Men' franchise, but this dreadfully boring and derivative entry could very well portent its end.
Sequels often seem too eager to reprise the (winning) formula of their
predecessor, without realising that the same jokes ain't quite so funny
the second time around; and yet those who try to reinvent the wheel
also risk falling out of favour with fans of the original, who are
ultimately expect a fresh, yet familiar, helping of the same.
Accomplishing that balance isn't quite so easy, which is just one
reason why 'Neighbours 2' is a surprising achievement. While reprising
the template of the original in having middle-aged Seth Rogen and Rose
Bryne's homeowners/ newfound parents take on loud, obnoxious teenagers
right next door, this sequel that manages to be just as, if not more,
raucous and outrageous is even funnier, more poignant and we dare say,
even better than the original.
Instead of Zac Efron's perfectly ripped Teddy Sanders and his other Delta Psi frat-boys, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Bryne) find themselves up against a sorority led by Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her similarly non-conformist new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein). Irked by the rule that sororities on campus are not allowed to host parties and appalled by the 'rape culture' at misogynistic frat parties, Shelby decides to search for a house outside of the university grounds to start a new sorority she eventually names 'Kappa Nu', a search that brings her to the very house where Delta Psi used to reside. Their timing however couldn't be more unfortunate in anticipation of their second child, Mac and Kelly have just sold their house to a mixed-race couple, who have a 30-day escrow period to make sure the place is in order before confirming their purchase.
Shelby finds an unexpected ally in Teddy, whom we learn has been struggling to adjust to life after college. Not only does he find that his abs have become no longer relevant at Abercrombie & Fitch where he works, his best friend and roommate Pete (Dave Franco) wants him to move out after coming out of the closet by announcing that he is about to get married to a man. Teddy's still sore about the previous confrontation with Mac and Kelly not least because it left him with a criminal record that has made it difficult for him to find employment and finds purpose assisting Shelby work out the sums to pay rent by showing them how to run a party to also attract more like-minded females to join Kappa Nu. It is also Teddy who coaxes Shelby not to acquiesce to a 30-day truce which Mac proposes.
And so just like that, the battle lines have been drawn between the two houses yet again, though Teddy will switch sides halfway when the Kappa Nus hold an executive meeting over Instant Messaging (IM) and oust him for being "an old person". Somewhat surprisingly, the gags you probably already know about including that of the Kappa Nus dressed in bikinis throwing themselves on top of Mac's car are as brief as they have been glimpsed in the trailers. Indeed, there is more up the sleeves of returning director Nicholas Stoller and his team of screenwriters (including original scribes Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and Rogen and Evan Goldberg) than you would expect, ranging from a marijuana heist at a tailgate party to an iPhone sabotage that leads to a series of misplaced texts and false alarms.
Just as amusing as these high-farce set pieces are the high-profile cameos by Lisa Kudrow and Kelsey Grammar, the former as a hard-assed college principal whom Kelly makes the mistake of trying to bribe with a couple of dollars and coins and the latter as Shelby's dad whom Mac and Kelly call in to rein in his 'wayward' daughter. That 'Neighbours 2' turns out more engaging than the sum of these parts is credit to the attention and detail that Stoller pays to each one of the key characters namely, Mac, Kelly, Teddy and Shelby none of whom he conveniently fits into the mould of hero or villain. In fact, you'll be pleasantly amazed at how your sympathies shift during the course of the movie, so much so that you'd wish that they could all just put aside their differences and get along with each other at the end of the day.
Amidst the laughs, there is also a thoughtful and sometimes thought- provoking lesson on sexism. On the surface, the very establishment of Kappa Nu seems like a modern-day feminist movement, its genesis rooted in the rebellion against the archaic rules of the Greek system that persist till today. And yet, along the way, Stoller and his eminently male screen writing team call out the hypocritical pitfalls of such empowerments, especially as Kudrow's college dean points out to Mac that 'there is no such thing as reverse sexism'. The subtext here is a little less straightforward, but those looking for a more forthright comedy of low-brow pleasure will find much to laugh and holler at in this authentically ribald sequel. Oh yes, fans of the original will be glad to know that even though the gender is different, the gross-out sensibilities remain intact, and this is as perfect a sequel as you would expect.
Neither Snow White nor Kristen Stewart from the earlier 'Snow White and
the Huntsman' return for this follow-up, though it is anyone's guess
whether their exclusion is due to the actress being too expensive for
this decidedly lower-budget instalment or because of her
relationship-ending fling with the first film's married director Rupert
Sanders. In her character's place, it is perhaps only natural and
inevitable that Chris Hemsworth's axe-wielding hero Eric would be
elevated to lead status, in order to form the narrative glue between
the events of that 2012 original and this latest and if you're
wondering about Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna, let's just say
that she plays at best a supporting role that is much less significant
than the promotional materials have made her out to be.
Rather than choose between a prequel and a sequel, French director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and his writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin have decided to make their live-action fairytale a bit of both, resulting in a time jump that will leave those unfamiliar with the earlier film more than a little confused. With no small measure of help from narrator Liam Neeson, we are introduced to Ravenna's younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt), a romantic-at-heart who turns into a bitter icy-hearted villainess following the death of her child at the presumed hands of her lover cum daughter's father. It is perhaps no coincidence given 'Frozen's' box-office success that Freya develops icy-related powers in her post-traumatic process, transforming into the Ice Queen who goes about establishing her kingdom of ruthless killers by kidnapping kids and training them to be warriors she calls huntsmen.
Two of her best warriors happen to be Eric (played in his teenage years by Conrad Khan) and the flame-haired Sara (Niamh Walter; then Jessica Chastain), who defy Freya's commandment not to love by doing just that with each other. When she finds out that Eric and Sara have secretly gotten married and intend to leave her kingdom, Freya separates them with a wall of enchanted ice that leaves Eric thinking that Sara has been killed by a fellow huntsman and Sara thinking that Eric has left her there to die. The plot then fast- forwards seven years to after Snow White's defeat of Ravenna in part one, where Sam Claflin's handsome prince makes a brief return to implore Eric to track down and destroy Ravenna's magic golden mirror that has gone missing but continues to exert its evil influence over Snow White.
That mission is of course but excuse for Eric to be reunited with his thought-to-be-dead wife Sara and team up to end Freya's icy dominion once and for all but not without vanquishing her 'cannot- seem-to-stay-dead' sister Ravenna at the same time. Since Eric and Sara are not quite people of good humour, their journey gets some welcome comic relief in the form of two male dwarfs Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) as well as their romantic interests of the opposite sex Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). As distracting as their snappy salty banter may be, their presence is easily the best thing that the film has going for it, not only because of their easy chemistry but also because they get the scant memorable lines from an otherwise clunky and leaden script.
As sympathetic as we want to be to the writers for having to keep Snow White out of the picture, the seven-year leap around the events of the original does their film absolutely no favours. What transpired between Ravenna and Freya in those seven years, or Sara for that matter, is probably the most glaring logic gap, not to mention why Freya would suddenly decide upon her sister's death that she should acquire the magic mirror for herself. It also begs the question why Freya never sought to doubt Ravenna's hand in orchestrating the death of her daughter in the years since the former left to create her own fiefdom, and only decides to do so when the latter is somehow magically resurrected by the mirror.
Nicolas-Troyan's experience in the visual effects department (as opposed to the storytelling department) also means that his priority is to deliver spectacle, and true enough, the wintry vistas as well as the CGI-ed sorcery looks sumptuous. There are Colleen Atwood's lavish costumes to feast on as well, the veteran designer on many a Tim Burton film going all out to make Freya look coolly stunning and Ravenna wickedly ravishing. Yet all that style cannot quite distract from a distinct lack of substance, which borrows liberally from a certain Disney animated hit with that song 'Let It Go', 'The Lord of the Rings', 'Game of Thrones' and even 'The Hunger Games'. Oh yes, you'll be hard-pressed to find a shred of originality in this half- baked mish-mash of a product which makes no apologies for taking ingredients from other vastly superior fairy-tales and/ or fantasy adventures.
If that sounds like we're bashing up 'The Huntsman: Winter's War', that's largely because it is quite embarrassingly devoid of imagination, inspiration or excitement and no minotaur-like monster or elfin wood nymph changes that. That's not to say that it isn't watchable, especially if all you're looking for is some diverting fairy-tale entertainment; but when you have actors off the quality of Chastain, Theron and Blunt, you'd probably expect much, much more than a throwaway popcorn flick that squanders them in such shallow caricatured roles. Hemsworth might be one of the hottest male actors today, but even his fit, rugged presence cannot quite save you from this cold.
For someone who has dedicated more than half his life reinventing the
martial arts genre of modern-day Hong Kong cinema, Sammo Hung certainly
has not been resting on his laurels. Not only did he recently direct
Aaron Kwok and Gong Li in the many extravagant action set-pieces of
'The Monkey King 2', he has also been busy assuming similar duties on
Benny Chan's upcoming period action blockbuster 'The Deadly Reclaim'.
Compared to these two elaborate big-budget epics, 'The Bodyguard',
which sees Sammo assume multi- hyphenate duties as director, action
director and lead actor, feels like a walk in the park for the
64-year-old actor/ martial artist.
And it probably is, judging from the friends who have turned up to see Sammo return to the director's chair after a hiatus of close of two decades including Yuen Wah as the postman of the sleepy town at the border of China and Russia where the movie is set, Yuen Qiu as a social worker, Yuen Biao as the town's police commander and Karl Maka, Tsui Hark and Dean Shek as a bunch of town elders who always have a quick barb to trade with each other. Besides these notable alums from Hong Kong cinema past, contemporaries like Hu Jun, Feng Shaofeng and Eddie Peng have also turned up for the all- stars reunion though we're leaving out special guest star Andy Lau, since he is after all producer of the movie through his Focus Films company.
Though it is unlikely to expect each one of these guest stars to have a meaningful place in the film, those expecting any of them to have anything more than a glorified cameo will be sorely disappointed. Except for Lau, who plays father to the young girl whom Sammo's titular bodyguard befriends and eventually protects, not a single one of the other actors contributes any more than a 'blink-and-miss' appearance, so there's no point wondering if any will spar with Sammo at all. Oh yes, you would do well to know that these 'guest appearances' are completely extraneous to the story, which tells of a retired Central Security Bureau (CSB) officer named Mr Ding who calls upon his very particular set of skills to protect an innocent life.
As much as that premise lends itself to a martial arts showcase for Sammo, 'The Bodyguard' is anything but. Indeed, those looking for a straight-out action flick will very likely be disappointed, for Sammo approaches the 'Taken-like' high-concept movie in a conspicuously low-key manner, so much so that it ends up being an hour of set-up, exposition and character build-up for a single extended close- quarter showdown that conveniently pits Sammo against two warring gangster factions at the same time and in the same place. To call it an action thriller would in fact be a misnomer, for it is at best a simple character drama with some bits of action thrown in to lure unsuspecting viewers from Sammo's considerable fan-base.
That drama largely consists of Sammo either looking lost due to the early onset of dementia that his character is suffering from or acting shy due to the advances of his landlord Madam Park (Li Qinqin). Crucially, Sammo plays his character so aloof that we cannot quite identify with the grief he has supposedly been carrying in his heart after losing his granddaughter while out with her many years ago, which is also why he is currently estranged from his daughter now in America. In the same way, we can also hardly feel the connection between his character and the young girl he now feels responsible for, or for that matter why he suddenly snaps out of his usual passivity to defend her in the third act.
It's no secret that Sammo is a better fighter than an actor, and the fact that he does plenty of the latter and too little of the former in the first two acts makes the movie a drag. Only in the last half hour does Sammo abandon his dementia-induced stupor for a one- against- many showdown against Choi's henchmen and the Russians, which gives him the chance to engage in the sort of lethal bone- breaking we suspect most would be waiting for. Yet it is hardly breathtaking stuff especially for those well-acquainted with Sammo's previous movies and too many close-ups as well as a slower-than-ideal frame-rate for Sammo's lightning-quick moves ultimately make this too-little too-late finale slightly underwhelming.
That expectations are high for 'The Bodyguard' is inevitable; like we said, this is the first time that Sammo is in the director's chair after helming both 'Mr Nice Guy' and 'Once Upon A Time in China and America' back in 1997. Yet even without the weight of such expectations, this languid drama with just one modest fight sequence at the end is unlikely to satisfy action fans or the rare audience member looking for a serious-minded story on redemption. At this age, there is really little that Sammo need do to cement his legacy as legend, but it should also be said that anyone looking for him to revive his past glories on the big screen will go away empty. We adore Sammo just as much as his most ardent fan, but even that love and respect is not enough for us to find anything redeeming about 'The Bodyguard'. Sorry, 'dai gor'.
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